Analysis 01-23-2015


Obama’s State of the Union Speech

Not Based in Reality?

The annual State of the Union speech (SOTU) by the president is a constitutionally mandated report that has grown from the traditional written report to Congress to a televised spectacle that says less about the state of the nation and more about political goals.  In that regard, the Obama SOTU speech follows the current trend of painting a rosy picture of what is happening, while outlining Obama’s goals for his remaining two years.

Obama failed to recognize contemporary political realities.  In fact, many felt Obama was more defiant, rather than bipartisan.  Two months after receiving a historical electoral drubbing for his policies, he didn’t address the concerns of the Congress or the electorate that sent it. He avoided any mention of the recent congressional election and offered no change in his approach as he threatened to veto several popular pieces of legislation in the next few months.

The most striking thing about Obama’s State of the Union address was how thoroughly and consciously it was disconnected from reality.   He said, “In Iraq and Syria, American leadership – including our military power – is stopping ISIL’s advance…Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group.  We’re also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort, and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism.  This effort will take time.  It will require focus.  But we will succeed.”

Normally friendly NBC News’s chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel, sharply criticized President Obama’s assessment of his foreign policy in his State of the Union, questioning how the president could think his strategy for stopping ISIS is working despite the militants’ resilience.

“It seems that the rose-colored glasses through which [Obama] was viewing the foreign policy were so rose-colored that they don’t even reflect the world that we’re living in,” Engel said during MSNBC’s post-speech coverage. He pointed to recent events in Paris, Iraq, and Syria as signs of the Islamic State and other terror groups’ growing presence worldwide.  “ISIS is doing very well, and the strategy is completely disjointed,” he continued. “To sell that as a success, I think was missing the point, maybe even disingenuous.”

Another normally pro-Obama reporter Andrea Mitchell commented, “I think that on foreign policy, his projection of success against terrorism and against ISIS, in particular, as I said, is not close to reality. They have not come up with a strategy, and they’ve built a global coalition…” Despite the fact that Iran is not an official member of the global coalition, mutual political interests dictate the necessity of informal collaboration between the United States and Iran. Putting their hostilities aside, they found themselves on the same side of war against ISIS. Obama recognized the potential negative consequences of sanctions, such as: weaken the coalition (create division among them) and Iran might walk out of NPT agreement.  

Other claims of foreign policy success were also questionable.  He claimed he had stopped Iran’s nuclear program and said, “For the first time in a decade, we’ve halted the progress of its nuclear program and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material.”  But, while acknowledging the difficulties of getting an agreement with Iran, he refused to consider congressional sanctions.  He told Congress, “But new sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails — alienating America from its allies; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again. It doesn’t make sense. That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress.”

However, Obama’s claims aren’t even close to being true. Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium has surged since 2009 according to the Center for Security Policy and has continued to increase since an interim nuclear agreement with Iran was agreed to in November 2013.  They say number of nuclear weapons Iran could make from its enriched uranium has steadily risen throughout Obama’s tenure, rising from seven to at least eight over the last year.


Obama’s Iran policy left a bad taste in the mouths of politicians on both sides of the aisle.  The next morning, Democratic Senator Menendez of New Jersey blasted Obama by saying, “I have to be honest with you, the more I hear from the administration and its quotes, the more it sounds like talking points that come straight out of Tehran.  And it feeds to the Iranian narrative of victimization when they are the ones with original sin–an illicit nuclear weapons program, going back over the course of 20 years, that they are unwilling to come clean on.”

The reaction to Obama’s Iran policy wasn’t any better on the Republican side.  House speaker John Boehner invited Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress on February 11. The invitation was specifically meant to be a repudiation of Obama’s Iran policy.  White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest reacted to the news by calling it a “departure from protocol.”

However, there is some indication that this move also shows some fractures within the Israeli government as Israeli intelligence warns that the Senate Iranian sanctions bill might “throw a grenade into the negotiations.”  Israel is also concerned about Iranian movements in Syria after Israeli air strikes killed several top ranking Iranian generals on the Golan Heights.

Obama also mentioned terrorism in the SOTU speech, although he didn’t mention al Qaeda.  He said, “First, we stand united with people around the world who’ve been targeted by terrorists — from a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris. We will continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks, and we reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we’ve done relentlessly since I took office to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to us and our allies.”

ISIS wasn’t the only foreign policy disconnect.  While fighting in the Ukraine is heating up, Obama took credit for isolating Russia and Putin.  Andrea Mitchell: “…but again, he’s talked about Ukraine, he’s talked about Putin being isolated. Yes, Putin is isolated economically and the falling oil prices have hammered his economy. But at the same time, there’s renewed fighting in Donetsk, and we haven’t figured out Ukraine, we haven’t figured out how the NATO alliance can push back. Sanctions have not really worked, and Ukraine is going to need more weaponry, and they have not reached that point.” Obama’s claims of success in Ukraine do not coincide with reality since the violence escalates in the region and the local government is not in control of the situation.  

Notably, he didn’t mention Yemen or the current crisis there, even though he had declared Yemen to be proof that his anti-terrorism policy was working in previous speeches.

Overall, the reaction by the Congress, Supreme Court (of which 3 didn’t attend and one attending justice fell asleep during the speech), and the diplomatic corps was modest.  SOTU speeches are known for applause lines, and this produced few.  His call for a “Use of Force” resolution to attack ISIS got little applause along with his threat to veto any new sanctions bill against Iran.  Embarrassingly, when Obama said he is not running for anything again, it drew derisive applause from Republicans.

The one positive for Obama was domestic – dramatically lower gasoline process.  He noted, “Our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999. Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis. More of our kids are graduating than ever before; more of our people are insured than ever before; we are as free from the grip of foreign oil as we’ve been in almost 30 years.”

His optimism is not reflected by the public though.  In a new Washington Post/ABC News poll roughly six in 10 said the economy was “not so good” or “poor.”  Six years into this recovery, jobs are hard to come by in many parts of the country and wages remain flat.  Hourly earnings actually fell last month, the U.S. Labor Department reported last week.  It’s gotten so bad that Obama’s own secretary of labor, Thomas Perez, publicly complained that the administration needed to get busy to “address the business of stubbornly low real wage growth.”

And, as was expected, he focused on several domestic spending projects – all revolving around the vague phrase of “Middle Class Economics.”  These proposals included increased spending on education and infrastructure.

Although Obama promised many spending plans, it is clear that Americans aren’t anxious for increased government spending.  A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 68% believe the president should focus instead on programs that can be accomplished within current spending levels.  Just 17% of Likely U.S. Voters think the president should focus on new spending programs in his latest State of the Union speech.

Not only are Americans not interested in new spending, they are growing less interested in the annual SOTU speeches.   64% of voters say they are at least somewhat likely to watch or follow news reports about the president’s latest State of the Union speech. That’s down from 72% last year and a high of 79% in January 2011.

So, if Americans aren’t interested in new spending programs, observers don’t believe Obama’s claims of foreign policy successes are true, and are less interested in watching the televised speech, what was the goal of the speech.

Politics – specifically the 2016 presidential election.

The substantive core of the speech involved president laying out Party policy goals for the next two years. It involved a politician looking to reframe some key debates to better prepare his party for the next election cycle. What he offered was not an agenda he can work on with this Congress but an agenda that a future Democrat could plausibly attempt to offer the public — an agenda at least superficially focused on opportunity and middle-class aspirations rather than inequality and middle-class resentments.

In fact, there is some validity in the idea.  Enhanced child-care tax credits, paid sick leave, and free community college enjoy majority support in polls — although that support tends to fall after people weigh the price tag.  Even Massachusetts, a solidly Democratic state barely passed a paid sick leave bill in November as voters worried about the cost and how it would impact inflation.  The idea that these proposals would help a Democratic presidential candidate in 2016 is problematic at best.  Republican presidential candidates will make a formable argument that paid sick leave is yet another mandate on small- and medium-sized businesses that they can ill afford just as they are being saddled  by the regulations of Obamacare.

There is also history to consider.  Not only do polls show that Americans have little interest in a larger government, post WWII history shows that voters prefer a change in the party that controls the White House every 8 years.  Only once – Reagan/Bush – has one party controlled the presidency for more than 8 years.  And, given that Obama’s approval ratings are still lower than his negatives, it seems likely that the historical pattern will continue.



Terrorist Plot 63: Attempt to Bomb the U.S. Capitol Shows the U.S. Cannot Ignore the Threat of Terrorism

By David Inserra

Heritage Foundation

January 16, 2015

Issue Brief #4333

On January 14, the FBI arrested Christopher Cornell for plotting to bomb the U.S. Capitol and then fire upon those who fled from the buildings. According to the complaint filed against him, Cornell, who was using the alias Raheel Mahrus Ubaydah, supported the Islamic State and sought to wage jihad against the U.S. This is the 63rd successful or foiled Islamist terrorist plot against the United States since 9/11 and continues the trend of homegrown terrorism.   In light of this plot and the recent Islamist terrorist attack in Paris, it is clear that the U.S. cannot simply wish away the threat of terrorism at home and abroad. Despite rhetoric about the defeat of al-Qaeda, the insignificance of ISIS, and the end of the war on terror, the reality is that the threat of terrorism remains. The U.S. cannot merely be content with its existing counterterrorism efforts, but must look to improve and build on these efforts to keep the U.S. safe.

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All Spin and No Substance: The Need for a Meaningful Obama Strategy

By Anthony H. Cordesman

Center for Strategic and International Studies

January 21, 2015

It may be unfair to expect any meaningful discussion of strategy and America’s security position in a State of the Union address. But, it is all too clear that President Obama failed to go beyond a few sentences of vacuous spin in dealing with the world outside the United States. The most he did was to claim that the United States has fewer troops at war. He provided no insights at all as to the security of the United States, his future defense policies, and his ability to translate strategic concepts into action.  Unfortunately, he has done little better in the past. President Obama has often been strong on concepts, but short on actual plans and progress. He has often talked about the importance of transparency, but has then provided little more than rhetoric and spin. Some six years after taking office, he still seems to find it extraordinarily difficult to get down to actual substance and to provide the kind of supporting data that gives him real credibility.

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AEI Scholars react to the State of the Union

By AEI Scholars

American Enterprise Institute

January 21, 2015

During last night’s address, President Obama declared that the state of the union is strong. His speech focused primarily on the economy and middle class workers, and also covered his agenda for free community college, his diplomatic plans for the next two years, and a space mission. While “the shadow of crisis” may have passed, many Americans are still curious what “turning the page” will mean for their daily lives. AEI scholars offer thoughtful commentary on the president’s remarks:

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Obama Straight Up Lied about Iran’s Nukes Tonight: Their Progress Hasn’t Been ‘Halted’

By Fred Fleitz

Center for Security Policy

January 21, 2015

National Review Online

By claiming in his State of the Union address Tuesday night that “for the first time in a decade” progress in the Iranian nuclear program has been halted and Iran’s enriched-uranium stockpile has been reduced, President Obama continued an unfortunate pattern of behavior by his administration on this issue: He outright lied.  President Obama’s claims aren’t even close to being true. Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium has surged since 2009 and has continued to increase since an interim nuclear agreement with Iran was agreed to in November 2013.  The number of nuclear weapons Iran could make from its enriched uranium has steadily risen throughout Mr. Obama’s presidency, rising from seven to at least eight over the last year.

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Six Months Away Yet So Near: The Forthcoming Elections in Turkey

By Ilter Turan

German Marshall Fund

January 21, 2015

Turkey’s upcoming elections promise to be critical on several counts, among which three stand out. First is the Kurdish problem. Second are the corruption charges leveled against the government. Third is what elections mean when the president, elected for the first time by popular vote, is trying to transform that position into a policymaker rather than a figurehead. These three issues may be critically important in determining the election outcome.

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AQAP’s Ideological Battles at Home and Abroad

By Robin Simcox

Hudson Institute

January 20, 2015

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is a grave security threat to both Yemen and the West. This was most devastatingly proved on January 7, 2015, when the group carried out a bombing attack against police cadets in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, killing dozens. Shortly thereafter, they likely perpetrated their first attack on Western soil.  Said and Cherif Kouachi, who had both travelled to Yemen in 2011 and are thought to have received training and financing from AQAP, murdered twelve staff members at the Parisian offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine that had published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. In the days after the Charlie Hebdo attack, AQAP claimed credit for the operation.  In fact, the group had already identified Charlie Hebdo’s editor as a target for assassination in the spring 2013 edition of Inspire, AQAP’s propaganda magazine.

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Coup in Yemen: Saudi Arabia’s Nightmare 

By Simon Henderson

Washington Institute

January 20, 2015

Confusion reigns in Sana today after Houthi rebels seized the presidential palace and laid siege to the residences of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and Prime Minister Khaled Bahah. A U.S. embassy vehicle was also shot at, and CNN reported that two U.S. Navy ships had taken position in the Red Sea to evacuate Americans from the embassy if needed. All this happened just a few hours before President Obama’s State of the Union address, less than two weeks after Yemen-linked terrorist attacks in Paris, and four months after the president credited Yemen as a successful example of U.S. counterterrorism strategy.  But the regional consequences are arguably greater than any embarrassment to Washington.

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Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor